Monday, July 23, 2018

Urban Sketching Survival Tips


Earlier this year my local urban sketching chapter spent a Saturday morning in downtown Albuquerque. It was the first time in ages that we actually went somewhere that wasn't rural and surrounded by mountains, trees, adobe ruins and all the dust and bugs one could ever wish for. I was excited by the prospect of sketching concrete and steel for a change: all those modern and mid-century designs, unique architectural details, secret cafe courtyards . . .  What I didn't bargain for was to be so overwhelmed by my surroundings I would promptly fall  down a flight of cement steps as soon as I had parked my car. Ouch.

My first impulse was to give up and drive right back home where I could tend to my badly-cut knee and spend the rest of the day reading. I felt terrible; my clothes were torn, my shoes scuffed, and my collapsible painting stool broken beyond repair. Worse yet, the city buildings seemed huge. No way could I capture anything but an inferiority complex at my inability to fit more than perhaps a tiny picture of a trash can into my sketchbook. Yet here I was: I'd paid for my parking without any chance of a refund; other urban sketchers were arriving one by one, cheerily greeting each other at the start of what was promising to be a beautiful day; I even had a full thermos of coffee. Going home didn't really seem like much of a solution. Deciding my best option was to stay, I limped to a quiet, shady corner of the street, got out my sketchbook, sat on a low wall, and just tried to do my best, all the while thinking of what I would do differently in the future:
  1. Dress right. Old clothes only! Fortunately the jeans and shoes I ruined were not my favorites, but they also weren't quite ready for the trash. Next time I'm not going to worry about fashion or appearances, just comfort and being prepared for the worst.
  2. Bring something to sit on that won't break. A solid plastic footstool is a much better choice than the flimsy collapsible model I'd brought. It could also make a good side table if you happen to find a park bench or similar to sit on instead.
  3. Limit your art supplies. It's tempting to bring a set of 72 colored pencils and all the watercolors in your possession, but do you really need them? Despite bringing a packed-to-the-brim pencil case, by the end of our sketching session I'd only used two pens: one black ballpoint and one Faber-Castell soft brush pen.
  4. Don't try to draw everything in sight. As much as I had longed to draw a detailed city-scape, I had no idea how difficult it would be. The best I could do was to:
  5. Focus on one small piece. I thought I'd solved my dilemma by choosing one view of one building, but even that turned out to be too much for me. Next time I'm planning to concentrate on a single doorway, a lone window, one interesting detail and that's it. One way I could have done this would be  to:
  6. Divide my page into a "montage." For instance, I could have created a small, general sketch in one corner, and in the other found an interesting lamp post, roof detail, or even an object in a store window to make a complete and attractive page.
  7. Always bring two sketchbooks: one large, one small. I did this solely by accident, not realizing I had a moleskine sketchbook in my purse when I left home, but it turned out to be a real bonus when I got too hot out on the pavement and went inside a hotel lobby to cool off. Which leads me to my favorite tip:
  8. If the weather gets too hot (or cold), find somewhere to go inside. My choice turned out to be the Hyatt Hotel, and I had the best time ever spending a half hour people-watching. I was also able to sketch some hotel guests as well as furniture and hotel decor. Having a comfortable chair after my earlier mishap turned out to be a real life-saver.
  9. Take photos. There's just so much to see in an urban or any other setting that you can't draw it all at once and in a limited time frame. Photographic references can flesh out your initial sketches in a way that nothing else can, reminding you of the way a beam of light hits a pane of glass, or how a group of pigeons pecks at a box of spilled popcorn on the pavement.
  10. Use toned or pre-toned paper. To avoid "white page syndrome" I often paint some watercolor washes onto a few of my sketchbook pages: usually a page of two of blues and greens, and a couple more in warmer shades of browns, golds, and oranges. If I don't have time for that, a gray or tan sketchbook like the one I used for my larger sketch works almost as well. I also thought it would be helpful to bring a variety of paper sizes--from fairly large to small scraps that could be worked into a collage at some stage.
  11. Don't be shy--show what you've done! I don't really like the drawings I made that day--but to my great surprise, I received many compliments on them regardless of my own negativity. My first impulse was to once again go back to my car and hide everything as quickly as possible, but that seemed horribly un-sporting of me and I didn't know which would be worse: showing work that embarrassed me, or pretending I had spent a morning doing nothing but sight-seeing.
  12. If you like someone's technique, let them know, and then try it yourself. The main point of sharing isn't to show off or invite public shaming, but to encourage, inspire, and offer new ideas to each other. Despite seeing my own drawing as "a failure," quite a few people came up to me later to say how much they liked my use of ink and toned paper, things they wanted to try using themselves. I was thrilled that I had something to offer.
By the end of the day, I was glad I stuck with the program and didn't drive back home. Best of all, I liked being downtown so much I decided to move there! Which is why I can't display my drawings here: my sketchbooks are currently in storage as I prepare to make the Big Move to my new condo. More news about all about that in my next post.
Tip of the Day: Take a few minutes to learn your terrain--go slow! My main reason for falling was that I didn't look where I was going while my mind was a million miles away envisioning what I would sketch first. I was staring at the skyline, not where my feet were. I didn't even realize there were stairs in front of me until I was flying through the air. Whether you're downtown with broken sidewalks or out in the countryside with rocks and mud puddles, don't let your imagination run wild until you've taken a few minutes to figure out where you are.